Approximately five million visitors land on the far-flung isle of Tenerife each year. It is the most visited island of the Balearic archipelago, and a favourite destination for sun-worshippers, party goers and nature-lovers. Known as the Isla de la Eterna Primavera, or Island of Eternal Spring, it enjoys a warm tropical climate and sunshine for most of the year, making it one of the most important sites of tourism for Spain.
You would be forgiven, then, for believing that its history and that of mainland Spain are linked inextricably. But the story of Tenerife begins long before the arrival of the Castilians in the 15th century.
At the time that archeologists and anthropologists believe the first human settlements were built, the entire Iberian peninsula was a theatre of war. Blighted by inter-tribal warfare, the Carthaginian empire was losing its grip on the region, and the highly organised Roman forces that had occupied the eastern coast were moving determinedly westward. On Tenerife, removed from the incessant battles of the Mediterranean, the Guanches, people genetically similar to the Berbers of North Africa, were living in near-isolation, with unique political and religious systems and a range of clothes and weaponry.
At the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre in downtown Santa Cruz de Tenerife, visitors can see the largest collection of relics left by the Guanches, including their sophisticated pottery, as well as fossils of prehistoric island animals. So too can guests find a permanent exhibition of Guanche mummies, impossibly well-preserved using embalming methods similar to those employed by the Ancient Egyptians. Included among them is the Mummy of San Andrés, a male of between 25 and 30 years of age partially covered with strips of goatskin. It is thought that he was a mencey, or local king.
History tells us that the Guanches had an extensive pantheon of gods and goddesses, many of them correlating to natural phenomena. Genies, benevolent domestic spirits and guardians, were also believed to govern aspects of Guanche life, as were dog-shaped Tibicenas – offspring, they believed, of the malignant deity Guayota. Evidence suggests that sacrifice, including human sacrifice, was practiced, while mass suicides following the death of a king are also believed to have taken place.
Similar practices were reported in Cyprus and Syria, and the indigenous inhabitants of Tenerife nonetheless had developed a system of governance that lasted up until the arrival of Castilians. The menceys ruled nine small kingdoms or menceyatos. These kings would sometimes meet, but it seems they largely kept their distance: those in the southern kingdoms were happy to betray their northern neighbours and join the invading Castilians in the hope of securing more fertile lands. They too were betrayed.
Of these menceys, Bencomo is the best known. He was one of two commanders of a combined army of Guanches who fought in the First Battle of Acentejo, in which the indigenous forces defeated a Castilian-Guanche army. It was the greatest defeat in the history of the Spanish Atlantic expansion, and there is something like triumph written in the facial features of Bencomo’s bronze statue, which stands tall in Candelaria, a city in the eastern part of the island.
Some of the weapons used by the Guanches are on display at the Museo Histórico Militar de Canarias, which is a short walk away from the Museum de la Naturaleza y el Hombre. Here, find exhibitions of swords used throughout the ages, and also weapons used as recently as the Second World War.
Comprehensive reports of life on Tenerife before the arrival of the Castilians are few. The best account perhaps comes from the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, who wrote in the Nuzhatul al-Mushtaq that it was a land of “sticky and stinking waters” and “bitter meat”. Guanche women, he said, had “a rare beauty” and the men were tall and of a reddish-brown complexion. It has been suggested that the Guanches may have had “visitors" to the island long before the Spanish occupation – proof, it seems, that Tenerife has always been a popular destination. Genoese and Portuguese explorers, for instance, may have visited in the latter part of the 8th century and afterwards.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the possibility that there was a civilisation on the island before even the Guanches. Citing an account given by Juba II, king of Mauretania, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History that in around 50BC, the ruins of great buildings were found on the island. Maybe it’s the case, then, that Tenerife’s history not only dates back to long before the Spanish arrival, but extends even further into the murky depths of antiquity. We can’t know, at least for now, just how many cultures and peoples made indelible marks on the country and its culture – marks which may still be felt and seen today by the millions who flock to Tenerife each year. What’s certain is that this Atlantic isle, with its volcanic geology, black beaches, lush forests and star-strewn skies, has a rich and diverse story, and we may never know quite how it goes.